August 24, 2007
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A trucker has sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, seeking to get back nearly $24,000 seized by DEA agents earlier this month at a weigh station on U.S. 54 in New Mexico north of El Paso, Texas.
Anastasio Prieto of El Paso gave a state police officer at the weigh station permission to search the truck to see if it contained "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal lawsuit Thursday.
Prieto told the officer he didn't have any needles but did have $23,700.
Officers took the money and turned it over to the DEA. DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto over his objections, then released him without charging him with anything.
Border Patrol agents searched his truck with drug-sniffing dogs, but found no evidence of illegal substances, the ACLU said.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants violated Prieto's right to be free of unlawful search and seizure by taking his money without probable cause and by fingerprinting and photographing him.
"Mere possession of approximately $23,700 does not establish probable cause for a search or seizure," the lawsuit said.
It said Prieto pulled into the weigh station about 10:30 a.m. Aug. 8 and was let go about 4 p.m.
DEA agents told Prieto he would receive a notice of federal proceedings to permanently forfeit the money within 30 days and that to get it back, he'd have to prove it was his and did not come from illegal drug sales.
They told him the process probably would take a year, the ACLU said.
The ACLU's New Mexico executive director, Peter Simonson, said Prieto needs his money now to pay bills and maintain his truck. The lawsuit said Prieto does not like banks and customarily carries his savings as cash.
"The government took Mr. Prieto's money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night," Simonson said. "In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator."
The DEA did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Peter Olson, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees state police, said he could not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit names DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy, DEA task force officer Gary T. Apodaca, DEA agent Joseph Montoya and three state police officers identified only as John or Jane Doe.